Israel will not agree under any circumstances to a ceasefire deal that doesn’t meet the country’s security demands, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday, as an Israeli delegation landed in Cairo to discuss an Egyptian proposal aimed at ending hostilities in the Gaza Strip and across the Israeli border.
“The delegation in Cairo is operating under clear guidelines to stand by Israel’s security needs,” Netanyahu said at the beginning of Sunday’s cabinet meeting. “Only if there is an answer to these security needs will we reach an understanding.”
Netanyahu vowed that the Israel Defense Forces would retaliate forcefully to any Hamas provocation.
“We are a strong and determined nation,” he said.
Netanyahu said that Hamas had suffered a massive setback in the conflict and that would be reflected at the Cairo negotiations. “We destroyed tunnels. We hit hundreds of terrorists. We thwarted the rockets it had accumulated. And we prevented attacks on Israel civilian targets… If Hamas thinks its defeat on the battlefield will be papered over by a victory at the negotiating table it is mistaken,” he said. “If Hamas thinks we can’t be stand up to this for a long time, it’s mistaken… If Hamas thinks that a continued drip-drip of rocket fire will prompt concessions from us, it is mistaken.”
Added Netanyahu: “In the volatile, unstable Middle East in which we live, you don’t just need more power, you also need determination and resilience. Hamas knows we have lots of power, but maybe it thinks we don’t have enough determination and resilience. Here too, it is making a big mistake.”
“We are a strong people, a determined people. We can stand together, firm and united until we achieve the goals of this operation — the restoration of quiet and security for all Israel’s citizens… As long as the quiet does not return, Hamas will continue to suffer very serious blows,” added the PM.
The comments came as time ticked down on a truce, set to expire at midnight Monday, that was declared to allow Israel and Hamas to come to terms to end over a month of fighting.
Israeli ministers from the right-leaning coalition have taken a hard line against allowing Hamas to come away from the table with any significant gains, but also signaled that Israel may be ready to sign on to an Egyptian proposal to end the fighting.
Ahead of the meeting, Finance Minister Yair Lapid said that Israel was committed to the protection of its civilians and the army would not back down until safety was restored.
“We must demand protection for the residents of Israel,” he said before entering the cabinet meeting, according to Ynet.
“We must make sure they feel safe, and we must not end the operation without them feeling safe.”
Lapid added that the Israeli government must create an international arrangement that protects the citizens of Israel.
Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz ridiculed Hamas demands for a seaport and airport in Gaza. “It would be like a Duty Free store for missiles,” he sniped, insisting that Gaza must be demilitarized.
Minister of Economט and Trade Naftali Bennett, a hardliner from the Jewish Home party, called for an immediate end to the ceasefire talks in Cairo, Ynet reported.
“This situation, in which we are biting our fingernails as we wait for an answer from a murderous terror organization, must end,” he said. “We must stop the negotiations with Hamas immediately and take our fate into our own hands according to a simple formula: humanitarian [aid] yes, terror no.”
Tourism Minister Uzi Landau (Yisrael Beytenu) joined Bennett’s criticism and asserted that the government had lost its power of deterrence, and that by negotiating with Hamas, Israel was effectively handing the group an international victory.
“Hamas is running the show, and we are being led by them,” said Landau.
“There is a very unpleasant feeling that Israel wants quiet at any price,” he continued. “We are giving Hamas international status. There is no victory on the ground.”
The talks resumed Sunday morning on the basis of an Egyptian proposal that calls for a lasting ceasefire beyond Monday midnight, and new talks on the thorniest issues, including demands for a seaport and airport in Gaza, to begin in a month’s time.
Hamas officials appeared to reject the proposal. Spokesman Osama Hamdan said Saturday that Israel must either accept its demands or face “a war of attrition, and Hamas’s military wing in Gaza declared, “We are continuing our struggle.”
However, another Palestinian official cited by the Palestinian Ma’an news agency, signaled more optimism. Senior Hamas political member Moussa Abu Marzouk told al-Jazeera that Hamas was not insisting on receiving 100 percent of its demands, Israel Radio reported.
Israel has not formally responded to the Egyptian proposal — an 11-point proposal that was leaked to the press Friday.
But Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri struck a hardline note Saturday, insisting that there can be no return to peace without a lifting of Israel’s eight-year blockade of the coastal enclave. Israel and Egypt imposed the blockade after Hamas seized control of Gaza from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007, and maintain it in order to prevent Hamas from importing more weaponry. Israel has pushed for a lifting of the blockade to be tied to the demilitarizing of Hamas, designated a terrorist group by Israel, the US and others. Hamas has rejected the notion.
Abbas, for his part, publicly broke ranks with Hamas on Saturday, declaring in Ramallah that there was no alternative but to “stick to” the Egyptian proposal.
Almost 2,000 people have been killed in Gaza in the past 40 days of fighting, according to officials in the Hamas-run territory. Health officials in the Gaza Strip claim over 70% of the dead were civilians. Israel, however, asserts that 750-1,000 of the dead are Hamas and other gunmen. It also blames Hamas for all civilian fatalities, since Hamas set up its rocket launchers, tunnel openings and other elements of its war machine in Gaza neighborhoods and uses Gazans as “human shields.”
Israel has lost 64 soldiers and three civilians in the fighting. Eleven of the soldiers were killed by Hamas gunmen emerging from tunnels dug under the Israeli border. Hamas has fired over 3,000 rockets at Israel, including some 600 from close to schools, mosques and other civilian facilities, the Israeli army says.
AP contributed to this report